An Example Debate

Oh girl am I dissatisfied with my latest long post. If you don’t want to click the link, it’s the one where I said feminists should ditch one of their more aggressive slogans, “men are trash”, for the greater good of the political landscape. It’s the type of post I had in mind when I first started the blog: a search for a middle ground of kindness and discussion between the right and left sides of the devastating social justice debate (admittedly with a leaning toward the left). That’s what I’ve always wanted to accomplish. That’s what my mouthful of a moniker, “The Thinking SJW”, was always meant to represent. But I clearly need more practice, because instead of building a bridge of understanding, I think the post just aggravated both sides. I’ll have to revise and reword my philosophy and get back to you with an updated version of how I believe we can save the future of politics.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the one part of the post I still stand by: how everyone should approach online debate with humility. In the original post, I directed the lecture at feminists like myself, but it really applies to everyone. I think we all need to listen more. We need to be gentler. We need to be more open to the possibility of being wrong. Let me give you an example. I’m currently engaged in a comment debate on YouTube about a typical social justice issue: “are there too many forced gay characters in recent movies?” I said no, someone else said yes, and what happened next is something the internet desperately needs more of: civil discussion. Enjoy! (You could of course also consider this a pseudo-post about my thoughts on minority representation in pop culture.)

THE THINKING SJW

In response to basically the whole thread minus OP:

I think the idea of “forced homosexuality” arises from a cognitive bias. We’re so used to seeing straight people in movies, that any other sexuality is bound to immediately catch our attention. Thus, our minds magnify it, making us perceive it as “forced” and “in-your-face”, and write it off as an “agenda” without narrative purpose.

But in actuality, most gay characters are no more forced than anyone else. The problem is not that they’re being shoved down our throats; the problem is that our minds are conditioned to perceive it that way.

And no, their homosexuality may not always serve a narrative purpose, but since when does every single aspect of a character have to serve a narrative purpose?

At least, that’s what I think.

MEGALODON

@The Thinking SJW Actually, no. Relationships can indeed be forced. In fact, in some cases, the “token gay character” has become the new “token black character”. Such characters are defined by their homosexuality and are basically there just to be gay, just as, in the past, the “token black character” was there just to be black. Such representation is not progressive as all and can even be detrimental. The goal shouldn’t be to create a character that is supposed to awesome just because he’s gay, but to create an awesome, complex character who happens to be gay. The characters homosexuality is a part of who they are, but it does not define them. The character needs layers, personality, rather than just being the gay guy or the lesbian.

You can blame the Chinese for the lack of gay characters. China is pretty homophobic and transphobic. They’re also pretty racist, as can be seen by how Poe’s presence on some film posters was minimized in China, and I’ve heard there was even a Chinese commercial at one point where they through a bunch of people into a machine and they all came out Chinese. Have to been able to confirm whether that’s true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Disney wants that Chinese money, and they can’t get that with gay romance. That’s why the most we get is a brief gay kiss in the background between nameless characters at the end.

THE THINKING SJW

@Megalodon Thanks for the reply. I never said relationships cannot be forced. I just think the “it’s a forced liberal agenda” argument is a biased knee-jerk reaction to basically any gay or otherwise non-normative character receiving attention.

Otherwise I agree: tokens do more harm than good, and any character should have depth that goes beyond gender identity or sexuality. I also agree that creating a character who’s “awesome just because they’re gay” is incredibly backwards; as I said in my original comment, a character’s homosexuality shouldn’t need to serve any kind of narrative purpose. And yes, China is inarguably hampering progress in this field.

MEGALODON

@The Thinking SJW You may be able to dismiss some reactions as “biased knee-jerk” reactions, as you say, but not all. Some people are just tired of Hollywood trying to preach lessons to us that we already know, and have known since we were children. I’m pretty sure most people know diversity is good and the color of one’s skin does not define you, yet Hollywood seems to assume that we are all racist, homophobic bastards, and that’s what they call those who criticize their films even if the complaint has nothing to do with race, gender, or homosexual relationships. I can certainly relate. I’ve been called a sexist just because I didn’t like this trilogy, a racist because I disagreed with an African American over a piece of art that had nothing to do with race, and a misogynist just because I feel that a man with a wife and daughter to take care of shouldn’t be punished for being forced to run a brothel against his will under the threat of death. People like that make me sick. You can not deny that there are people like that out there.

THE THINKING SJW

@Megalodon I do concede that there are many horrible (non-thinking) SJWs out there. I’ve encountered a couple in my life. And I’m sorry you were treated that way for simply expressing your opinions. Political correctness absolutely goes too far sometimes.

But I’m about as normative as you can get – white, male, straight, cis – and yet, I very rarely feel lectured by pop culture. I very rarely feel as if a TV series or video game is judging me as a racist, sexist, homophobe or transphobe. I very rarely feel afraid to criticize a movie because of my relative privilege. So no, I don’t share the idea that we’re living in a world where our entertainment assumes we’re all bigots and preaches liberal gospel to convert us.

If I did agree with that worldview, then I’d understand everyone who complains about forced diversity. But since I don’t, since I consider that worldview to be the result of a cognitive bias, I dismiss most such complaints accordingly. Plus, I find that they’re often worded aggressively, which makes me even more inclined to write them off as bitterness and fear of change.

With all that said: do you have some good examples of forced minority characters, or invasive liberal agendas in recent pop culture? You seem like a decent human being, so maybe if I hear it from you, and not a jerk, I might see what everyone’s complaining about.

MEGALODON

@TheThinkingSJW We’ll, off the top of my head, there is Anita Sarkeesian. Known best for her Feminist Frequency videos, Sarkeesian has dedicated herself to pointing out what she perceives as sexism in video games. The first thing that I noticed was that she claims to have been a gamer since she was little, yet I was actually able to find video of her talking to a class about how she wasn’t much of a gamer growing up. There were also the picture of her playing games. I believe the one that caught my eye was the one of her playing either a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One. The problem with the photograph is that the controller is not lit up. Those who own these systems know that the controller lights up when the they are turned on and stay lit when the console is turned on. The photograph was clearly posed by someone with little knowledge of how these systems work. There is also her behavior when confronted by criticism. I’ve seen video at a conference of someone challenging her evidence of sexism, and rather than make a mature, reasonable counter-argument and open dialogue with this person, she and her fellow speakers start childishly mimicking him and saying “that’s what you sound like”, like grade school children in a disagreement on a playground. That shows clear immaturity. Finally there were the Feminist Frequency videos themselves, which show a clear lack of knowledge about the subject matter she discussed. The one in which she discusses Bioshock Infinite‘s character Elizabeth was most telling. She states the character is sexist because all she does is act as a side kick and assistant to the player character, passing him weapons and opening portals for him. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elizabeth is not just some sidekick character who needs a man to fight for her. She is literally the most powerful character in the story, able to bend space and time, and (apologies if you don’t like spoilers), she ends up being the key to everything in the story. Another interesting thing about her videos is the fact that both the like/dislike ratio is hidden, and comments are not allowed. I suppose one could argue that she is hiding from harassment, but the internet isn’t a place for people who don’t want to be insulted or harassed. She’s the perfect example of the “thoughtless SJWs”, as you describe them, trying to force their agendas where they are not welcome in pop culture, in this case video games. On an unrelated note, thank you for not insulting me. To be honest, your question caught off guard. At this point in the conversation, things usually devolve into insults.

THE THINKING SJW

@Megalodon You’re welcome, and thank you as well for your friendly and well-researched answer. The case of Sarkeesian is absolutely interesting, and from what you tell me, she sounds like an example of harmful political correctness, which I, once again, totally agree is a thing. But I view her more as a commentator on entertainment than actual entertainment. My question was more concerned with what we were discussing initially: characters or story elements WITHIN movies/video games/books that you consider examples of forced diversity, virtue signalling, or other SJWisms. I want to understand why so much pop culture these days is derided as “forced liberal nonsense” by so many. Because I just don’t see it.

Sure, I can name some examples of dumb leftism in films, such as the cringeworthy revelation of the female main character’s future importance in Terminator: Dark Fate. But they’re not nearly numerous or egregious enough for me to subscribe to the view that so many share: that pop culture is run by SJWs who forcibly insert characters and morals into our entertainment to point out how bigoted we are. I consider that a biased perception. (See my first comment for more details on that bias and its probable origin.)

My own perception is this: there is a recent mass awareness of inequality in pop culture, and creators are trying to rectify that inequality by adding diversity and messages of social justice to their works. Some do it well (Steven Universe has several lesbian and non-binary characters, and they’re all well-written), and a few do it poorly (the aforementioned Terminator sequel, and the nonsensical overhaul of Mulan’s character in the recent Disney remake come to mind), but overall, it’s a positive and much-needed change. The fact that it goes too far or becomes stupid or preachy sometimes doesn’t invalidate the movement.

You and I simply appear to have clashing views on the political landscape of modern entertainment. Perhaps you’re biased, perhaps I’m biased, or perhaps we just hang out on different websites and neither of us has the whole truth. Whatever the case, this discussion is refreshingly civil and intellectually challenging, so I think we’re doing each other and whoever may be following us a favor by having it.

Sorry about how long the responses got toward the end. The Anita Sarkeesian example is actually much longer, but I truncated it here in the interest of staying within your attention span, dear reader. (Yes, that does feel a little dishonest, but I think I’ve kept the gist of what Megalodon was saying. If you want to double check, or perhaps keep following the debate, here’s the actual comment thread.)

Now for the analysis. Why do I consider the above debate a good one? What methods did I use to steer it away from the all too common pitfalls? Not that I deserve all the credit, as my opponent was civil as well, but I do want to highlight some of the things I did as particles of constructive discourse:

  • The obvious example is ending my original comment with “at least, that’s what I think”. It’s such a simple sentence, but also so disarming. It clarifies that I don’t purport to know the truth, and that I invite others to challenge or build on my theories so that we can figure out the truth together. That’s both humble and immediately constructive. Really, if those six words were appended to every statement on the internet, we’d have a lot less to fight about. At least, that’s what I think.
  • Another thing to keep in mind is that language is flawed and invites misunderstandings. You’re using symbols (either oral or, as in this case, graphic symbols) to transport abstract thoughts from your mind to someone else’s mind – of course some of the meaning is going to get lost on the way. That’s why I made sure to read Megalodon’s arguments several times before formulating my rebuttals, and also why I wasn’t upset when they misunderstood me. Instead, I just explained my point better. I translated my thoughts into symbols with more precision. For example, in my last comment, I clarified what my question was about and why I had asked it. I didn’t insult my opponent for missing my point; I even said the example they brought up was interesting, even if it wasn’t what I had asked about. (For the record, I strongly sympathize with Sarkeesian. I think the hatred towards her is a much worse problem than her alleged ignorance.)
  • Furthermore, I picked my battles. I wanted to condemn the opinion that “the internet isn’t a place for people who don’t want to be insulted or harassed”, but stayed my hand, because that would have not only made my rebuttal too long and cluttered, but also added to the number of arguments that Megalodon would have to defend themselves against. I always feel attacked when several objections are raised towards me at once, and I usually become defensive in response. I wanted to spare my opponent that, for their sake and for the sake of the debate.
  • Yet another thing I avoid doing is to act as if I know why my opponent thinks what they think. That’s something I only theorize about quietly. There were things Megalodon said that I highly suspect were manifestations of their own subconscious prejudice, but not once did I say “you only think that way because you have lingering sexist ideas deep down”. Such claims are second only to name-calling in their efficiency at ruining a good debate. Especially in a case like this one – like I said, it’s subconscious prejudice, so people never agree that they have it. They think they’re being purely logical. And, understandably, nothing enrages a culturally conservative or moderate person more than being called sexist or racist when they think they’re being purely logical.
  • I also made an effort to focus on our common ground by dedicating entire paragraphs to things we agreed on. Not only does this make the debate friendlier; it pinpoints what we disagree on so that both parties are aware of what the focus of the debate should be.
  • Lastly, I was just being nice. I complimented Megalodon on their tone, thanked them for their input, and admitted that their arguments were “intellectually challenging”. That stuff really works. Notice how Megalodon thanked me for not insulting them (which is not something I expect gratitude for, but it’s still nice to hear). I don’t think they would have done that if I hadn’t previously called them a “decent human being”. It’s a wonderful feature of our species: kindness inspires kindness.

And there you have it. My thoughts on how to debate constructively. How to stretch out a hand to the other side while still staying true to your opinions. Granted, my opponent wasn’t hateful, nor were they even my political opposite – I’d call them a moderate rather than an extreme conservative – so I suppose the example is somewhat insufficient. If I truly wanted to back up what I said in that other post, that we should be gentle even towards the extreme and the intolerant, I would have needed an opponent who was actually extreme or intolerant. But I don’t even know if I subscribe to what I said in that post anymore, so this example works for now. It still showcases the merits of being kind and calm, and valuing nuance and mutual learning – in essence, the merits of being a Thinking SJW. I mean, look at all the things I accomplished through this debate:

  1. Make a stranger’s day a bit better with some kind words
  2. Prove to said stranger that not every white guy who rattles on about social justice is a self-righteous dweeb
  3. Add to the total number of nice comments on the internet
  4. Perhaps get through to someone I’ll never know, someone who was just reading the comments, and inspire them to look at things from my point of view
  5. Have some food for thought myself
  6. Maintain my online presence, securing future traffic to the blog 😀

Goodness, this post was long. If you take only one thing away from it, let it be this: debate because you want to enrich the world with thoughts, not because you want to defeat your opponents. (That is true even when your opponent really is intolerant; then they deserve to be defeated, but debate is rarely the way to do that.) Debate from a place of love, not fear. Even if you happen to be debating a colossal prehistoric shark.

I must confess, this isn’t the person’s actual profile pic. They really do go by “Megalodon”, though, and that awesome name deserved an appropriately awesome illustration.

At least, that’s what I think.

2 comments

  1. Some time ago I decided to make a real effort to curb my tendency towards a very confrontational debating style (actually, I have made this decision quite a lot of times) and promised myself that would begin every retort in an argumentation with a few words like “You have a point there. Still and all…” or “While that is indeed a valid argument, I think that we should also consider…”. I broke the promise almost immediately.
    True, these were oral debates – including small and insignificant squabbles with my nearest and dearest – and you talk about written discussions. It is arguably harder to keep your cool when you are forced to come up with a response, argument, or explanation on the spot. But I fear that the “debates” in written form that I have participated in (comments to newspaper articles and suchlike) very quickly go the same miserable way. I comment because the article or post has made me angry; I grow angrier still during the exchange of opinions, especially if my opponent is uncivil, or seems unable or unwilling to grasp my point, which is quite often the case.
    So, your “Rule of Six” – your list of good advices – will be particularly useful, when I now renew my efforts to be a nicer, cooler, and less aggressive debater. I will keep the list in mind when occasion for argumentation arises. – By the way, you list two pitfalls that I have in fact always managed to avoid, even in my worst moments: number three and four. Number three, picking your battles, is standard rhetoric theory, not just because it is nicer to your opponent, but also because to have more than one point or position tends to blur your own argumentation. And number four is the classical argumentum ad hominem. A despicable weapon, but all too common – often used in a very insidious manner, so that you do not even know why you feel so bad when it is used against you.
    Thanks for this extremely interesting and useful post; if I follow your advice, I will surely become a nicer person, late in the day but better late than never as they say. There is just one thing I can’t help ruminating about: if Megalodon ever reads this post, will he, perchance, feel a little bit annoyed, suspecting that the whole exchange was more or less fake – an exercise in positive debating, in which he unwittingly played an ancillary role? (Not that this would be the truth, I hasten to add.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad to hear it 🙂
      And yes, that’s something I worry about too. I’d also feel a bit betrayed if that happened to me. Let’s hope he doesn’t investigate my Youtube profile, because it does have a link to this blog…
      Anyway, thanks for reading and for your comment!

      Like

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